There will come soft rains and the smell of ground,
and swallows circling with their shimmering sound…
Sara Teasdale

By Dr. Jim Ferguson
These days I often find myself button challenged. Last week’s column header was a quote from the opening lines of “A Tale of Two Cities,” where Charles Dickens notes “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” I feel the same about the devices we use to stay informed, up to date and connected.
Historians often look back and label an epoch or period by its zeitgeist. An example is the Enlightenment or the Middle Ages. I am sure our epoch will be labeled the information age.
We live in unique times where access to information – and disinformation – is unprecedented in mankind’s history. In times past we gathered information through hearing the spoken word. Later, the written word became preeminent. Now we have the visual mediums of movies and television. And soon we will have virtual experiences and learning.
Bill Murray once starred in a less than stellar movie called “Lost in Translation.” Sometimes I feel lost in modernity trying to get my devices or gizmos to work. A device is defined as a “piece of equipment designed to serve a special purpose or perform a special function.” In other words, a device is a tool. I write on my laptop device or navigate visual media on my smart TV device. But I also write on my iPhone device which additionally serves as a phone, and a connection to the World Wide Web of information. The GPS function on my iPhone has even helped this physician with a poor sense of direction find a patient’s home for a house call. So, our devices often have multiple purposes and functions. Perhaps Mr. Webster should update his definition of a device.
All this tech is well and fine as long as you can find the right button to make the darn thing work. Becky and I were recently challenged by our devices.
We are taking a driving trip to the Land Between the Lakes as part of my fourth and final essay on our beautiful Tennessee River. The first essay was on the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers to form the Tennessee just above Knoxville (Forks of the River). Then, I wrote another essay about The Tennessee River Gorge in Chattanooga. The third installment of the series included the Mussel Shoals area and the Tom Bigbee waterway.
On our trip we wanted to play an educational CD, but like most new cars, ours does not have a CD player. I guess people just stream “their” music and podcasts. We purchased a device which runs on the Bluetooth Wi-Fi system of the car. However, despite heroic efforts we were unable to get the device to work. Fortunately, Becky’s “new best friend” and tech savvy Riley at Toyota of Knoxville helped her locate the right buttons. No man can resist a beautiful woman’s request for help!
A similar issue arose for me when I tried to access the Knox Focus webpage on my iPhone. It is well known that Microsoft systems and Apple platforms don’t always work together. (We were also told that electronic medical records would allow our health records to follow us as needed. That was and remains a lie.) I am not beautiful like Ms. Becky, but I can be pleasant and the lovely Ms. Lisa at The Focus helped me find the right button on my iPhone and solved the problem.
But the top device story goes to a friend of my sister-in-law with a home vacuuming device. Interestingly, the tech savvy friend can monitor his vacuum device on his smartphone. Recently, while at work he got a message from his vacuum cleaner that said, “I’m lost.” No, the vacuum cleaner had not escaped the house and gotten lost in the neighborhood. It was more mundane than that. The tech guy turned on his home camera and discovered the poor thing had run out of “gas” a few feet from its charging station and could not articulate the correct message.
I was interested in the story beyond the obvious because my science fiction novel focuses on issues of communication. And like the android Data of Star Trek fame, the non-humans in my novel do not use contractions in speech, but the vacuum cleaner did! Becky refers to me as the “king of contractions” in my essays. I find contractions more like our speech and less stilted.
Actually, I love my iPhone which is the remedy for my curiosity. I realize there is a price to pay for access to the world wide web of information. I have chosen to surrender some of my freedom/privacy for the benefits my smartphone affords me. Apple and the other Tech Lords know where I am, what I watch on TV, what I buy and who we connect with because of our devices. The books “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” and “Zucked,” as well as the documentary “The Social Dilemma,” speak to the risks of tech. Some just ignore the risks and blindly trust the “untrustworthy.” Some “go dark” by exiting all electronic connections and footprints. Others accept some risk, but are very cautious.
The title of the short story by Ray Bradburry called “There Will Come Soft Rains” came from the poem by Sara Teasdale. The story describes the “Aware Home” and is available online and is a must read. I know people who have many aspects of their home connected to the internet. Examples are Alexa, Ring Security Camera and Nest. I’m more cautious. I turn off my laptop computer and close the folding top when not in use because one day I walked past my study and the camera light was on when the top was open, despite a blank screen.
While I take precautions against Peeping Toms, I accept the harvesting of data about me by my smart TV. And while I don’t have an Alexa device, Siri on my iPhone is always listening for my summons, “Hey Siri.”
In fact, this AI facsimile may be more real than we think. In responding to one of my recent queries, Siri actually choked while answering me! Poor thing. But being a Southerner perhaps I should say, “Bless her heart.”